Having looked at the swelling of the Tea Party, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not a uniform movement. There are at least three different movements trying to give the impression of being one. The most influential of these movements is the one that fits most easily into the GOP. It is associated with Sarah Palin, Karl Rove, and other Republican regulars appearing on Fox. It emphasizes what Dick Morris describes as “economic issues exclusively,” and those issues can be summed up as Obamacare and some of the ill-considered bailouts passed by the Democratic Congress since 2008.
These protestors against the Democrats are by no means hardliners, and they already enjoy places of honor at the GOP table. These spokespersons for “smaller government” are not asking for much that the party can’t give them. Or else they are asking for what GOP leaders might claim they would give them if the media and Democratic politicians allowed them to do more. Such Republicans have made it a practice to scream loudly at the Dems. But they also tend to fall meekly into line once their party returns to power.
In 1994 after the great Republican congressional sweep, the late journalist Robert Novak urged the new House Speaker Newt Gingrich to abolish government-promoted quotas for minorities. Gingrich is reputed to have explained to Novak that there’s no reason to drive away blacks, women, and Hispanics by doing anything risky. In any case Republicans would vote Republican, no matter what. Gingrich was of course right.
What the Speaker might have also mentioned was that the 1992 Civil Rights Act, which re-institutionalized quotas after the Reagan administration had backed away from them, was mostly a Republican achievement. President G.H.W. Bush and Senate Minority leader Robert Dole had strongly backed the bill and induced Republicans in Congress to get behind it. Only heaven knows why a Republican Congress, once back in control, would have bothered to rescind it. Their voters were happy simply having their party win elections.
This group of Republican non-insurgents often shares the stage with another bunch of Tea Party activists. Although this second group may applaud the ungrammatical platitudes and gesticulating of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, it seems driven by something more than fear of Obamacare or anxiety about losing Medicare payments. This group senses that something was wrong with the government long before John McCain lost the presidential sweepstakes in 2008.
November 1, 2010
Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, The Strange Death of Marxism, and Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right. His latest book is Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers.